often hear networking described as ‘small talk’ or ‘a waste of time’ and sometimes ‘insincere’. But if that’s true, why do institutes and associations keep talking about developing networking skills? Why do companies sponsor networking sessions during and after events? And why do we bother to carry business cards? Is it just to show off the subtle off-white colouring, the raised lettering and the watermark?
Our daily activities often entail some form of "human engagement" – from speaking to the people in our immediate vicinity, to engaging with others during project team meetings and liaising with our clients. Within a month of working at WSP each individual will have developed a network of people and, over time, those relationships will strengthen. To help develop these existing relationships, we can share insight with our colleagues and offer innovations and solutions from past projects which demonstrate our experience. This helps open conversations into other avenues and gives us credibility, especially if we can relay the results and figures from those past projects.
So why would we want to go beyond our "everyday" network? We have repeat business from our clients and we enjoy working with a reliable team. Life is comfortable. However, by staying within our comfort zone we are limiting our sphere of influence and are arguably plateauing. This realisation is sometimes known as the ‘inflection point’ and often occurs several times through one’s career. An individual must keep developing skills to help achieve bigger challenges, and these challenges can be found by expanding our network.
So how can we all benefit from expanding our network:
- Operational networking: Identifying key people internally helps us perform our responsibilities more efficiently. Developing quality relationships brings trust which ensures coordination and cooperation on a given task. A good way to find out who these people are would be to think about what your projects really needs and have a look at the organogram and speak to your colleagues about their experience; they may introduce you to someone who can have a great impact on your delivery. Using operational networking helps managers delegate and frees them up to focus on the following points.
- Personal networking: Talking to people beyond our "safe zone" makes us aware of the knowledge we have about other areas of the business and challenges our social skills. In return we gain new perspectives and insight into different solutions and can be offered referrals to other people and sub-consultants. This shared wisdom, can help expand and develop what we know and find out what we don’t know. These personal relationships can be the foundation for strategic networking.
- Strategic networking: Identifying the people you should be talking to internally and externally will bring new opportunities in the future and help you understand the wider markets over the long term. It is important to build your network with stakeholders, SMEs and the team you need to deliver projects or initiatives. It is also important to stay abreast of politics, which can help identify whether the business opportunity is worth the investment.
From experience, I can say that networking is not a waste of time or energy. It is important to understand how to make the connections work for the problem in hand. Spending the time to understand what motivates individuals and nurture your network will bring dividends in the future. Finding a mentor who is objective and who understands how to strategically network will help.
Finally, networking does take time to master, but rewards will be reaped from continuous action over the three different types of networking. Remember: Networking can be both formal and informal, and you will learn a lot through the process as well as having some fun along the way.
Athena Livesey was previously chair of the ACE Progress Network.
ACE's Progress Network is now known as ACE Emerging Professionals. The group is sponsored by Mott MacDonald.